Thursday, 27 November 2014

Beyond the Seed project: an artists’ response to the incredible world of fungi

Fungi art #1: Beyond the Seed project: an artists’ response to the incredible world of fungi

by donna davis, Brisbane Botanic Gardens artist-in-residence 2014

I am an artist who has only recently been introduced to the incredible world of fungi; my introduction came through a project that I worked on in 2013, The Plant Room, which involved endangered plant species.  
It was through this project that my current interest in fungi evolved, I thought it might be nice to share the story of my introduction to fungi and artworks associated with my initial investigations.

Firstly, a bit about me….I am currently the artist-in-residence at the Brisbane Botanic Gardens, Mount Coot-tha, a position which I have held since 2013.  As an artist I like to explore new ways of working with scientific data in order to develop works that capture and create sites of ecological observation. (Which basically means I try to visually articulate a variety of ecological and biological concepts in the artworks I create!). I work across a range of media including assemblage, installation and digital media to explore connections and relationships with the natural world.

My practice explores the nexus between art and science, with a particular interest in ecology.  I believe that the art/science field provides a powerful catalyst to challenge our discourse, raise environmental awareness, promote conservation and empower individual stewardship of our ecology; by providing new ways of ‘seeing’ and creating new ‘connections’ in the mind of the viewer.

My 2013 project, The Plant Room investigated five (5) endangered plant species from South East Queensland.  The resulting artwork, an installation piece, explored these plants as ‘living powerhouses’, referencing some of the vital functions plants play in the biosphere.

Whilst researching these plant species it quickly became apparent that there are many negative factors that influence why particular plant species are currently listed as endangered. So I decided to reflect on some positive factors that could help save and / or conserve these species. 

Seed saving is a great example. The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership is a program that partners with 80 countries to collect and save seeds from wild plant species, with one of their partners being the Queensland Seeds for Life Partnership (Q-SFL).  Accordingly, I embarked on discussions with the Q-SFL based at the Brisbane Botanic Gardens, Mount Coot-tha, to see whether any of the species from The Plant Room project could be included onto the 2014 Q-SFL collection priority.  I was very pleased to have two (2) of the plant species from my project selected for the program and was lucky enough to be involved in both the collection and processing of the seeds.

Through this experience I began to consider what other elements would be beneficial for seed germination, ie: if we lost a species in the wild and had to access the seed from the seed bank for propagation. 

This lead me to consider soil health, so I began to do some further research and made many visits to the Queensland Herbarium.  During this phase I met Megan Prance a passionate fungi advocate, who quickly educated me on the important and fascinating world of fungi!  Aesthetically fungi are amazing, coming in a vast variety of shapes, forms and colours, some even glow in the dark!  But I soon learned this was only the beginning of their unique and fascinating realm…. I was intrigued to learn about mycelium networks and mycorrhizal associations that exist right beneath our feet, supporting soil health and providing vital networks of nutrient exchange between plants and fungi.  As an artist I began to have immediate creative and conceptual ideas to develop a new body of work based around fungi.

I decided to investigate potential mycorrhizal associations between seed, root and fungi; exploring the interconnected world of symbiotic relationships to reveal the ‘unseen’ through art.

Being a total novice I mistakenly thought that all mycorrhizal fungi was micro-fungi (with their fruiting bodies only able to be seen under a microscope).  So I was very excited to find that there are a number of macro-fungi that are also thought to be mycorrhizal – this was an exciting breakthrough for me as this meant that I could observe fungi fruiting in the wild without the need for microscopic examination.  

During my seed collection missions with the Q-SFL I began to look for fungi that was growing in the vicinity of the endangered plant species from the Plant Room project – I took images and tried to identify them, and also sent this information onto the Queensland Herbarium for their records.  From this experience I decided that I should continue these observations to document and collect data about fungi occurrences and possible mycorrhizal associations with these plant species.  I joined the Queensland Mycological Society (QMS), learnt the correct process for collecting fungi and applied for a permit to do so.  I also asked for two additional locations to be listed on the approved QMS collection site list.

Not really knowing what I was looking for, I began to research fungi families that were known to be mycorrhizal in order to learn more about shapes, forms and characteristics of these families.  Some of the families I found included: Clavariaceae, Russulaceae, Boletaceae, Inocybaceae, Sclerodermataceae, Amanitaceae, Cortinariaceae and Cantharellaceae, by no means a comphrensive list.  I then began to look at which of these families had species that occur in South East Queensland.  I narrowed the search further by only selecting species that grow in similar habitats to the five endangered plants from The Plant Room project.

I decided to focus on ten (10) fungi species, so I was not too overwhelmed.  In order to learn more about these fungi I began to do some pencil drawings to become familiar with each fungi, this also acted as a great creative outlet and as a learning tool (I am a tactile learner!).  I created mini factsheets for each species and then began to link fungi species with plant species according to habitat information.  This then formed my creative hypothesis for further research in 2015 where I hope to collect fungi data from two locations to see whether any of my thoughts can be proved or disproved….it is very exciting to see what I might find.

I recently held a ‘works in progress’ exhibition at the Brisbane Botanic Gardens where my hypothesis was displayed in a ‘crime scene’ type of visual aesthetic with different coloured ribbons connecting plants to fungi.   This attracted lots of comments and interest – with many visitors noting that they had seen similar types of fungi growing around their suburbs.  It was also great to be able to talk about how approximately 80% of the worlds plants form mycorrhizal associations with fungi and discuss the importance of these interactions for both plant and fungi.  As education plays an important part in the artworks I create, it was very interesting to talk to the general public about fungi, its importance in our ecosystems and to dispel some of the common myths about fungi.

Drawings, sculptures and digital images that have formed part of my research also formed part of this display.  This helped me to consolidate my creative investigations by allowing me to see how my research and artworks have developed over the year. It was great to fuse the new discoveries I have learned, the inspiration I have found and the new creative connections I have made together in preparation for my major exhibition in 2015. 

I am now back in the studio working on my final artworks for the project that will form the Beyond the Seed exhibition, to be displayed in March 2015 at the Richard Randall Studio, Brisbane Botanic Gardens, Mount Coot-tha.   I am very excited to see how the works evolve.  To find out more about my work and/or the progress of my exhibition preparations you can visit or


  1. Donna, that's beautiful work! I'm a QMS member and very interested in mycorrhizas - ecto and VAM. Your work has inspired me and I hope to visit the exhibition in March. Theresa

  2. What a fabulous piece of artistic presentation, engaging writing, and as a web presentation.
    Well done.

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